Rabbi With Midlife Crisis Looks for Answers

Seeking Sinai on the Sawtooth Trail

Kurt Hoffman

By Niles Elliot Goldstein

Published October 13, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.

We both knew it was over. Though I’d been the spiritual leader of my congregation in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village since its founding in 1999, and while we’d weathered the horrors of 9/11, personal tragedies and a catastrophic recession together — as well as celebrated births, marriages and other joyous events — if I had to officiate at another bar or bat mitzvah, I’d lose it. After a decade of service, it was time for me to move on, and it was time for them to find a new rabbi who wasn’t bored and burned out. Two months before my final paycheck, I left the synagogue, New York and my wife, and spent a couple of weeks by myself in a cabin near Hood River, Ore.

My marriage, too, had been headed south for a long time. While I loved my wife, my heart told me that our relationship needed to come to an end. Despite the truth I felt in my heart, my brain was torn by the issue: “Why should I leave a situation that had become so… familiar?” I drank alone at night in my basement cave to try to numb my questions and doubts. If my situation didn’t change, and soon, I would continue to damage my body and hide from the difficult reality that I was depressed.

Oregon wasn’t an escape, it was a mirror — still, silent and far removed from the frenzy of New York City, a place I had grown more and more weary of after almost two decades of living and working there. I landed in Portland in early July, picked up my rental car, and drove east for an hour or so through the Columbia River Gorge until I emerged in the town of Hood River. Then, after stopping for supplies, I turned south toward Mount Hood and my isolated cabin that was tucked away in its foothills.

In my seclusion, I forced myself to face the life-altering choices that loomed before me. Within two months I’d be unemployed for the first time in my life. I asked myself, “What am I going to do next, a rabbi who has no desire to serve another congregation?” Differences with my lay leaders about our community’s direction, a lack of intellectual stimulation with my work, disappointment in the commitment of many of those I’d committed to — these were just a few of the reasons I felt dissatisfied. And then I turned to the more emotional and frightening question: Should I get a divorce from a woman I still care about? These two questions reverberated inside my soul day and night, whether I was on a hike, river rafting, going for a drive or watching the sunset. I couldn’t shake them — nor would I allow myself to. Was I about to enter a brave new world and free myself from the burdens of boredom and despair, or was I, like Ahab, a wounded man in midlife, pursuing the phantom of fulfillment that would either elude me or drive me to the ends of the earth — and, perhaps, self-destruction?

All I had were questions.



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